Indigenous Peoples have a direct relationship with the land and water, embodied in their languages, ceremonies, family relationships and worldview. Culture is the expression of the bonds and responsibilities that Indigenous Peoples uphold for present and future generations. Protecting and maintaining sacred places such as salmon spawning grounds, moose calving areas, freshwater springs, food and medicine gathering areas, ceremonial spaces and burial grounds carries a responsibility to future generations. Some of these areas are also rich in minerals and metals that both industry and government want to extract from the Earth, to the detriment of their sacred and life-giving qualities upheld by Indigenous Peoples.
By 1865, the population of the new British colony of British Columbia had soared from about 7,000 people to more than 30,000, primarily with gold miners who sought their fortunes in the heart of Secwepemc Territory, quickly establishing the gold rush town of Barkerville. The miners brought many diseases with them, leading to the near annihilation of Indigenous nations who were ravaged by smallpox, measles and tuberculosis, diseases that effectively devastated entire nations. For Indigenous communities, “gold fever” meant disease, displacement and death.
As Indigenous survivors were reeling from the plagues of gold fever, they were systematically and forcibly organized onto Indian reserves by the new colonial administration, eager to remove them from their resource-rich territories and subdue resistance by Indian Chiefs, who strongly opposed the illegal occupation of their homelands. Assimilation policies followed suit, forcing attendance at residential schools, which removed surviving children from their traditional ways of life in an attempt to break their connection to their land-based identity.
While Indigenous nations were engrossed with their very survival, entrepreneurs followed the miners to the gold fields and sold food, whisky, brothel services, transportation, tools and building supplies, and infrastructure for a new colony.
Mining laws in British Columbia predate and take privilege over almost all other land uses in the province. These laws were created to capitalize on the gold rush and were used to generate royalties for a new settler colony. Many of the laws created in the 1850s for free-entry staking and gold panning are still being used today despite the exponentially larger scale at which modern-day open-pit mines operate, and without respect to other land values or rights of title holders. These outdated mining laws are in direct opposition to Indigenous worldviews and ways of life, which are intimately connected to the land. Despite severe assimilation policies, the Indigenous traditional lifestyles of hunting, fishing, gathering and ceremony continue on, dependent on clean, intact, accessible land
Mount Polley Mine Disaster (2014)
On Aug. 4, 2014, the tailings pond at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley mine failed at a catastrophic level, releasing more than 24 million cubic metres of tailings waste (ground rock particles, waste water and chemicals) into the fish-bearing waters of Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake. The magnitude of force from the collapsing of the tailings pond tore the old-growth forest to shreds, and scoured the mountainside down to bedrock for approximately 10 km, emptying into the salmon nursery and later endangering the Fraser River watershed.
To the Secwepemc people, this lake is known as Yuct Ne Senximetkwe, the birthing waters of the salmon and the greatest of all lakes in the territory. The disaster was experienced as a death, with fear for the future of clean water, salmon, birds, wildlife and humans in the watershed. The worst environmental catastrophe in Canadian history, the Mount Polley mine disaster forced both the government and the mining industry to acknowledge what Indigenous Peoples had been saying all along — that major mining law and practice reforms are needed to prevent another such atrocity from occurring again at any one of Canada’s thousands of active and inactive mines.
Indigenous communities immediately impacted by the disaster, including the Secwepemc, Dakelh, Tsilhqot’in and St’at’imc, spoke out about the need to be involved in the government response and decisions related to this disaster — all are located within the same Fraser River watershed and depend on its salmon for food. But despite considerable public outcry and pressure from Indigenous Peoples, mining laws in British Columbia were only marginally modified in the three years following, and continue instead to protect the interests of mining companies over the health, safety and longevity of present and future generations of people within the Fraser River watershed and beyond. The investigations carried out by the provincial Liberal government recommended no charges or fines to the company responsible for the disaster.
On Aug. 4, 2017, the deadline for filing charges against the Mount Polley Mining Corporation, a subsidiary of Imperial Metals, Indigenous rights advocate and former Xat’sull First Nation chief Bev Sellars took matters into her own hands and filed private criminal charges against the company for the Mount Polley mine disaster. Sellars’ private prosecution cited 10 violations of British Columbia’s Environmental Management Act and another five charges under British Columbia’s Mines Act. In a news release announcing the action, she stated, “We just couldn’t let it go. In my culture, we have a sacred responsibility not only to care for the land, waters, animals and people living today, but also for the next seven generations to come. I could not bear to witness B.C. simply stepping aside and giving up on its own responsibility to protect our shared environment and waters.”
Indigenous Jurisdiction, Planning and Protected Areas
After more than 150 years of land dispossession and court battles over Indigenous title and rights, Indigenous Peoples are engaged in land use planning processes, establishing Indigenous parks and protected areas, and conducting territory inventories and baseline studies of land and water with newly formed Indigenous guardian and ranger programs. In addition, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has become a hot topic between industry, governments, and Indigenous Peoples. In particular, Article 10 of the declaration addresses “free, prior and informed consent” in relation to forced removal or relocation of Indigenous Peoples. “Business as usual” now must include Indigenous Peoples — a far cry from the disenfranchisement and assimilation policies of the past.
At a United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights hearing held in Williams Lake, B.C. in May 2017, UN representatives heard from Indigenous representatives about the lack of consent for industrial projects, and the direct human rights impacts from the Mount Polley mine disaster. As part of its response, the United Nations has stated that B.C.’s mining regulatory framework must be “urgently reformed and brought into compliance with Canada’s international human rights obligations.”
As Indigenous people’s populations regain strength and health, as human rights violations are acknowledged and addressed, and as new generations of healthy, traditionally grounded and reconnected Indigenous people emerge, pressure to reconcile and replace unviable business models and mining practices that pollute and diminish the Earth are also emerging. Although much work remains to be done, a shift is happening — one that includes and acknowledges the value of Indigenous knowledge, consent, worldview and leadership.
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